A Perfectly Crazy Idea

This entry is part 1 of 25 in the series Cruising With the Mothers
If you’ve been following along, you’ve sailed with me and my wife, Kris, on our first-ever voyage (Galaxy), with me and my son, Ryan, on Mercury (Father and Son Cruise), and then on Millennium with Kris, me, son Wells and his best friend, Dan (Cruising with Teens). The first of these stories is now out in book form (What Time Is the Midnight Buffet?), featured in CruiseCritic’s holiday gift guide for 2005. It was inevitable that we’d cruise again. Here’s the story…

A Perfectly Crazy Idea

It was Saturday, December 18, and the year 2004 was quickly coming to a close. The holidays were approaching fast, and I had a long list of things I needed to do on this day. By 1:00 p.m., none of them were done. I decided to pick up where I left off almost four hours earlier – with coffee and the Boston Globe. A new beginning of sorts…

It all started early that morning. On the way downstairs to get some coffee, I stopped at my computer to check email. I don’t know why I bother to do this – 99 out of 100 emails are junk – but I’m always hopeful that something actually written for my personal attention and pleasure will arrive. The pickings were slim this morning, and the only item of interest was the weekly show preview/newsletter for A Prairie Home Companion, a public radio program broadcast live every Saturday evening.

If you’ve never heard of A Prairie Home Companion, you have a lot of company. Although it has been on the air for more than 30 years, I’ve met relatively few people who know of it. Even those who have heard mention of the show’s title seem to hold the same opinion that I held for many years – “Why on earth would I listen to a program with a name like that?” I always imagined some kind of an audio Farmer’s Almanac, with discussions about cow milking, seed germination and locusts. For years, I avoided it like the plague.

One summer weekend, I was making the drive to the family “camp” in Maine. Radio stations are sparse along the route, and I was happy to find one that came in loud and clear. It was playing a program that was structured much like a radio variety show from the golden age of the medium – great live music, skits complete with sound effects, old-time (fake) advertisements and lots of laughs. As I neared my destination, the host of the show launched into a monologue that was spellbinding – a 15-minute story about the lives of fictional characters of Lake Wobegone, Minnesota, an imaginary town settled by Norwegian immigrants “during the great herring famine.” I arrived at my destination, in pain from laughter, just as the story was ending with the trademark phrase “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” Without realizing it, I’d been introduced to A Prairie Home Companion.

Following that introduction, I made it a point to listen to the show as often as possible. Some Saturday nights at the camp would find 10 or more people huddled around the radio, listening to a unique little bit of Americana – just like the good ‘ole days before television.

Back to the email… This week’s letter from APHC host, Garrison Keillor, was very different and caught my attention immediately. It is worth quoting the majority of it, as it sets the stage better than any interpretation I can give:

Dear Friends,

The Prairie Home Companion Cruise 2005 has just leaped off the drawing boards and into the realm of reality and I wanted you to know about it first, before we announce it on the show on Saturday.

It’s a one-week cruise, leaving Boston August 20, sailing to Halifax, Cape Breton, Prince Edward Island, and Bar Harbor, returning to Boston August 27, aboard the ms Maasdam of the Holland America Line, with the entire Prairie Home Companion complement—the Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band, the Royal Academy of Radio Actors, plus BeauSoleil with Michael Doucet, expert naturalists, historians and of course the guy who thought up this idea, me. Seven nights of variety entertainment, four days hiking and sightseeing ashore, two restful days at sea….

My wife and daughter and I (we’ll all be aboard) have had wonderful cruise vacations in the past and that’s the genesis of the idea—it simply is fun. You’re free to take part in the giddy social whirl and relentless schedule of entertainment, you’re free to curl up on a deck chair with a good book, you’re free to close your eyes and snooze. The rugged rocky coast glides by and in the gentle throb of the ship and the bracing sea air, your jaw muscles relax, your mind eases, you forget about the grinding cares of life and you loaf and invite your soul. There is plenty to engage the kids (the pool, the paddle tennis on the top deck, the daily HAL club, video games), and elders are comfortable and well cared-for. You can find just the right combination of laziness and exertion—scenic places to hike on shore, the big promenade deck for jogging or walking, the big well-equipped exercise center where you can walk a treadmill and watch the sea…and then, of course, there’s breakfast, lunch, naptime, tea, dinner, movies, roulette, and so forth.

The cruise will give you a full day to explore historic Halifax, the home port of Canada’s Atlantic fleet, and the Maritime Museum and the downtown waterfront; a day on beautiful Cape Breton Island with Fort Louisbourg (1744); a day in Charlottetown, the Victorian capital of Prince Edward Island (tea at 3 p.m.); and a day in Bar Harbor, gateway to the magnificent Acadia National Park. At each port, you’ll be able to buy excursions (kayak, bike, sail, bus, etc.) or simply hoof it on your own. Aboard ship, our naturalists and historians will give us regular running commentary so we have some sense of where we are.

There are several levels of accommodation, of course, from the princely to the modest, but life aboard ship is basically egalitarian. Some people splurge so they can have their own veranda where they can sit in their jammies and drink coffee in the morning, others figure that a bedroom is for sleeping so why spend money for extra space to be unconscious in—it’s a matter of personal taste, and the dining is all one class of service, it isn’t fine china for the gentry and tin bowls for the peasantry. The food on Holland America is very good, and the service is exemplary.

As a further gesture toward a spirit of equality, all reservations made before Feb. 11 will be entered in a lottery to determine who will receive an upgrade to the penthouse suite. This is a Daddy Warbucks luxury accommodation that probably our Minnesota passengers would be unable to enjoy without horrible pangs of guilt, but surely our coastal friends could, so reserve early—and good luck.

There will be a couple of writers’ conference sessions for the poets and novelists in our midst. There will be a Trip Journal, compiled daily from the literary contributions of passengers. You’ll have a chance to hear Rich Dworsky playing in the lounge, and Pat Donohue, and other stellar talents whom you’ve heard for years on the radio and wished you could hear more of, without interruption. We will, at some point on a day at sea, all join hands on the top deck, a line of people encircling the boat, and do a Norwegian line dance. BeauSoleil with Michael Doucet will bring an air of French fire and wit to our journey along the coast of their ancestors. I’ll happily tell you about my Keillor ancestors who landed in Halifax in 1774 and spent a hard century trying to farm the tidal saltwater flats until they escaped to Minnesota. And more.

I can’t think of a better way to spend the dog days of August than sailing to the Canadian maritime provinces with like-minded odd people…I hope to see you on board.

Now I realize this might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it sounded like a lot of fun to me. I printed out the email and went downstairs to show it to Kris.

“What’s this?” she asked.

“Just read it,” I said.

A couple of minutes later Kris looked up. “This sounds like fun.”

“My thought exactly,” I said. “Wanna go?”

“You said we wouldn’t be going on another cruise until the boys were finished with college.”

“So I lied. This is too perfect. And it even leaves from Boston.” The port is less than an hour’s drive from our home in New Hampshire.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Kris said. “It isn’t on Celebrity. Is Holland America any good?” Kris had been on two cruises, both on Celebrity and both with me. From our experience, we had no reason to look elsewhere for a host at sea.

“Where’s your sense of adventure?” I asked. “Holland America has a good reputation – but this cruise isn’t about the ship, it’s about the entertainment.”

Kris skimmed through the email again. “I suppose…I like the naturalist and historian stuff…Hand me the cruise book.” The Berlitz guide sat on the coffee table, handy for escapist reading on a cold day. I passed it to Kris.

“Maasdam, right?” she asked, thumbing through the pages.

“That’s the one.”

Kris read through the listing for HAL’s Maasdam. “It only gets four stars,” she said.

I rolled my eyes. “What are you, some kind of elitist?”

“Hmmm, no fish knives…”

“Have you ever seen a fish knife?” I asked.

“No. I’m only kidding. I think these books are overly critical,” she said. “I mean, really, who cares about fish knives? Hey, isn’t this ship a lot smaller than Galaxy or Millennium?”

“Yeah. A lot of people say that the small ships are preferable,” I said. “There’s only one way to find out…So – should we go?”

“It might be fun,” said Kris.

“It will be fun,” I corrected. “I really want to go to the writer’s conference. Maybe we’ll win the penthouse suite, so let’s just get the cheapest inside cabin…”

“Hey, hold it right there – you know I love my verandah,” Kris said. “We didn’t have one last time, and if we’re going to do this, I think we should go for it…”

That was all the encouragement I needed. I flew up the stairs to my computer, and began to read about Maasdam. A few hours later, my strategy was in place. Using deck plans and photographs, I deduced that the rearmost Cat. B cabins on Maasdam had huge verandahs, wrapping around to the aft of the ship. When I went to book online (through the charter operator) I found that there was no way to specify an individual cabin, so I booked a Cat. B hoping I could wrangle one of the two “big verandah” cabins later on.

I went back downstairs and told Kris, “It’s a done deal.”


“Yup,” I said as I sipped my coffee and unfolded the newspaper.

Kris gave me a smile and said, “Good. Just you and me back on the high seas…”

An idea had been forming in my head while I arranged the cruise, but I kept beating it back into submission. Suddenly, it escaped through my mouth. I was powerless to stop it…

“Do you think our mothers would like to go?” There – it was out. A perfectly crazy idea…

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